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US plays down chances of military action over Syria
by Staff Writers
Abu Dhabi (AFP) April 25, 2013

US lawmakers demand action on Syria chemical weapons
Washington (AFP) April 25, 2013 - Members of Congress urged US President Barack Obama to take action to "secure" Syria's chemical weapons after he warned Thursday that strongman Bashar al-Assad likely used them against his own people.

Republican Senator John McCain led the revulsion and anger in Congress, saying it was now up to Obama to coordinate a response that prevents such weapons, including the agent sarin, from falling into the hands of terrorists or extremist groups.

Obama "said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game-changer, that it would cross a red line. I think it's pretty obvious that a red line has been crossed," McCain told reporters.

"We have to have operational capability to secure these chemical weapon stocks," he added. "We do not want them to fall into the wrong hands, and the wrong hands are a number of participants in the struggle that's taking place in Syria."

For months the veteran Republican has urged Obama to take a more pro-active role in the Syrian conflict and pressed him to help arm Syrian rebels and ensure safe havens in the country.

On Thursday he called for increased White House pressure on Russia and Iran to stop supplying weapons to Assad, and greater commitment to aid Syria's rebel groups fighting Damascus.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, concurred that "red lines have been crossed" in Syria.

"Action must be taken to prevent larger scale use. Syria has the ability to kill tens of thousands with its chemical weapons," she said in a statement.

"The world must come together to prevent this by unified action which results in the secure containment of Syria's significant stockpile of chemical weapons."

But while Feinstein turned toward a United Nations role, some Republicans were urging more direct US action.

"The time for passive engagement in this conflict must come to an end," Senator Marco Rubio said, adding that allowing Assad to plunge his country deeper into chaos "will have disastrous consequences for US interests for decades to come."

"I urge President Obama to explain to Congress and the American people... what additional measures he is ready to take to follow through on his previous statements."

Republican Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Assad's use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people, if true, is "an astounding violation of human rights," and triggers a "national security imperative."

Obama now has "a deep moral imperative" to act, McKeon said.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers said Obama made an "important acknowledgement" about chemical weapons.

"Now that we have confirmed their use, the question is what is our plan for transition to a post-Assad Syria?" he said.

"The world is waiting for American leadership."

The United States is not on the brink of military action despite an assessment from US spy agencies that the Syrian regime likely used chemical agents, a US defense official said Thursday.

The US military has prepared contingency plans for the Syrian conflict, but officials traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the Middle East suggested military action was not a certainty -- at least for the moment.

"It's our job... to present options to the president upon request," the senior defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

But the official added: "Intelligence assessments don't automatically trigger policy decisions. It's important to note in this case."

Alluding to the disastrous intelligence failure in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the official indicated the White House would be careful not to allow intelligence reports to drive a decision to use military force.

Former officials and analysts say the United States could try to secure Syria's chemical arsenal by sending in special forces teams and launching bombing raids.

But any military action would be high-risk with a chance that weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.

Deploying troops would require warplanes to knock out Syria's air defenses first, allowing special forces to be flown in, experts say.

The Pentagon has already sent more than 200 troops to Jordan, including a US Army headquarters element, to prepare for a possible joint operation with allies to secure chemical weapons.

US intervention no longer appeared as a remote possibility after Hagel and the White House said Thursday that American spy agencies had concluded President Bashar al-Assad's regime probably had fired deadly sarin gas against rebel forces on a "small scale."

In a letter informing members of Congress of the findings, the White House said the intelligence services had "varying degrees of confidence" that the regime had drawn on its chemical arsenal.

The defence official confirmed that the phrase "varying degrees of confidence" is a term commonly used by the intelligence community to indicate disagreement among various agencies.

But the assessment reflected a degree of certainty that Syria most likely has fired chemical agents and was not merely a tentative suspicion, the official said.

"There are very strong indications at this point that chemical weapons have been used in Syria," the official said.

Although British, French and Israeli officials had for weeks privately pointed to mounting evidence that Syria was resorting to chemical agents, the official rejected criticism that US spy services may have lagged behind other countries.

"The United States reaches conclusions on intelligence on our time frame. And is not driven by other countries."

The official spoke to reporters accompanying Hagel on his first trip to the Middle East as Pentagon chief.

Concerns over Syria's civil war and fears that chemical weapons had been unleashed dominated Hagel's week-long tour, that included stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.


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